How These Black Artists in Charleston Are Driving the City’s Rich Culture
The sounds, sights, and sensations that make up the artistic fabric of The Holy City have centuries-old roots in the African American communities there. Here are some of the stars making it the cultural hot spot it is today.
Charleston’s thriving cultural milieu stems in part from the thousands of West and Central Africans brought to the coastal Carolinas to work on cotton, rice, and indigo plantations. Because these regions were so remote (some included barrier islands), descendants of enslaved residents were able to retain certain elements of their Indigenous African culture.
Out of this, a new language, Gullah, was born, along with new artistic traditions that blended traditional and American elements. Today, Charleston has many artists in residence who aim to keep Gullah history alive.
Chanteuse Quiana Parler
One of the most renowned artists in the Lowcountry, Quiana Parler began her professional singing career at The Carolina Opry, a musical variety show in Myrtle Beach. Since landing in the top 48 of season two of American Idol in 2003, she’s performed all over the world and shared the stage with the likes of Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Bobby McFerrin, Miranda Lambert, and Maroon 5.
Parler currently tours with Charleston’s two-time Grammy-winning jazz ensemble Ranky Tanky—named for a Gullah expression that means “work it” or “get funky”—as the lead female vocalist, and as a lyricist and composer. Along with drummer Quentin Baxter, trumpet player Charlton Singleton, guitarist Clay Ross, and bassist Kevin Hamilton, she serves up contemporary arrangements of old Gullah songs, which were historically performed using only a cappella voices and body percussion, as well as original compositions.
Fifth generation basket weaver Corey Alston
Basket weaving is a cornerstone of West African culture that traces more than three centuries back. In South Carolina, sweetgrass—a supple, perennial grass native to the Lowcountry islands—along with bulrush, pine needle, and palmetto leaves, was used by enslaved people to create baskets used in rice cultivation on the Sea Islands.
A fifth-generation artisan, Corey Alston’s family has been weaving traditional sweetgrass baskets for nearly 100 years. Like his Gullah ancestors, he harvests his own materials from the local landscape, uses no synthetics or machines, and keeps the art form alive by passing down his knowledge to his children. In 2022, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. commissioned a custom sweetgrass basket from Alston that took four months to complete. Charleston visitors can find his works at City Market.
Musical alchemist Charlton Singleton
Charlton Singleton is one of those people who was seemingly born to be a musician. Raised just outside of Charleston in Awendaw, South Carolina, he began his musical studies at age three with the piano. The son of a preacher, he made his stage debut just one year later when he performed Amazing Grace at church.
Singleton went on to embark on what would be a distinguished career as an in-demand performer, composer, arranger, and speaker—what Charleston Magazine sums up as “a musical alchemist, a magician.” He’s taught music at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, served as adjunct faculty member at the College of Charleston, and cofounded the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and Ranky Tanky, for which he won a Grammy Award for the jazz- and Gullah-inspired album Good Time in 2019.
In 2021 this accomplished artist received the Governor’s Award, the highest honor for the arts in the state of South Carolina. Singleton currently serves as Artistic Director for the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, a nonprofit dedicated to performance, education, and outreach in celebration of the city’s jazz history.